Politics, Pandemic and First-Year Prep

New students find community by focusing on a common challenge

Incoming Suffolk first-year student Stephanie Bulega was poised, her voice steady as she addressed renowned MIT Economics professor Daron Acemoglu in front of a live virtual audience of hundreds. 

“When a government commits human rights violations, what political and economic recourse do citizens have to protect themselves, and does a pandemic affect those options?” she asked, drawing Acemoglu and several other economic and policy experts into a thoughtful final exchange that marked the end of their panel discussion. 

The session, Does COVID-19 Change Everything? Building Our New Normal, capped a nine-week virtual public lecture series on Politics in the Time of Global Pandemic, part of an innovative free summer course developed by the Department of Political Science & Legal Studies in partnership with the WGBH Forum Network and the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University. 

Four experienced faculty members — Christina Kulich-Vamvakas, Kenneth Cosgrove, Roberto Dominguez, and Linda Holcomb — helped students dive deeper into each week’s topics through small class discussions, readings, and projects. More than 140 incoming first year students met virtually in their sections, then gathered together for weekly panels with experts from around the globe–scientists, members of Congress, and leaders in law, media, economics, public health, and government.   

Stephanie Bulega at her laptop
First-year undergraduate law major Stephanie Bulega participated in Suffolk's Summer U from her home. 

Starting fresh

For Bulega, who plans to major in law, the summer course was a welcome opportunity to start fresh after a final high school semester marked by disappointments, including a canceled prom and a drive-through graduation.

“I don’t know how I maintained my grades in the spring because I was just so done,” says Bulega, who graduated from the Pioneer Charter School of Science II in Saugus, Massachusetts. “I jumped at the chance to take this class and get back into an academic rhythm before college started.” 

The course helped junior government major Maddie McAloon re-connect with the Suffolk community after her spring study abroad experience in Prague ended abruptly back in March. 

“We’re not all in the same boat, but we’re going through the same storm,” has been McAloon’s pandemic mantra, acknowledging differences in experience as she and her classmates face similar challenges this academic year. 

Her role as a Teaching Assistant (TA) for a section of the pandemic course taught her to connect with and help other students in new ways–skills she’ll employ as a Resident Assistant and a mentor in the College of Arts & Science’s first-year experience class this year.

Building community

When McAloon first offered students “virtual office hours” she figured no one would show up.

She was wrong. 

Not only did students reach out, but the scope of their questions ranged far beyond the content of the course. 

“I answered questions about residential life, move-in, how to plan class schedules, use online learning tools,” says McAloon. “As they came to office hours more, I also saw them open up more in class.”

“At the beginning of the course students were relying a lot on Zoom’s text chat feature and they were hesitant to ‘unmute’ themselves,” she says. “We saw them grow more comfortable and participate more over time.”

Nancy Chammas at her laptop
Junior political science student Nancy Chammas connected with first years as a TA for the summer course. 

TA Nancy Chammas, a junior political science major, measured her section’s progress in Instagram DMs. 

Students can sometimes be most comfortable interacting on social media, says Chammas, so she made her handles available. One incoming student’s most pressing question had nothing to do with the pandemic:

“She wanted to know how early she could show up to class once she got to campus without looking over-eager. It made me so happy that she felt comfortable asking me questions about the type of real first-year worries we have all had,” says Chammas.

A firm foundation

In addition to starting the fall semester with a network of peers, mentors, and faculty, students who participated in the pandemic course — and another summer course on writing for first years — had a technological head start using the University’s Blackboard online system, Zoom, and other learning tools. 

Alejandro Garcia
Alejandro Garcia, Class of 2024, asked a question in one of the public panel discussions. 

Alejandro Mendoza-Garcia, Class of 2024, is already putting those skills to use on the other side of the screen this semester as he works as a technology facilitator in one of Suffolk’s Hyflex classrooms. Hyflex classes are taught on campus, and students can attend in person or remotely. Student facilitators like Mendoz-Garcia assist with instructional technology and help manage the online cohort during HyFlex sessions so professors can focus on teaching. 

Mendoza-Garcia also learned many other important lessons that will serve him well throughout his time at Suffolk. 

“You can't really have a textbook about the coronavirus epidemic, because we're living it,” he says. “We were encouraged to go out and read the news and see what's going on for ourselves. It was a lot more hands-on and engaging.”

Representing the country of Sweden in a pandemic-response role-playing assignment taught him perspective; working with Professor Cosgrove to craft questions that generate discourse taught him the importance of preparation; and being able to ask those questions of experts who’d seemed like “celebrities” taught him to aim high and get involved. 

A lasting impact

“These really are extraordinary and challenging times and they call for extraordinary educational opportunities. This groundbreaking collaboration has allowed us to open up one of our virtual classrooms to the general public, and the response has really been overwhelming,” said Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly as the series drew to a close.  

Zoom image from the politics in the pandemic panel event
“We had 142 students take part in this series. Four faculty members each taught two sections, for a total of eight sections. We hosted 32 guest speakers on our panels, representing 25 different organizations. Eleven Suffolk faculty and staff appeared on camera and behind the scenes. More than 140 questions were asked in the Q & A, including 30 from our students. We welcomed 12,111 public attendees, representing 75 different organizations and reaching around the world including participants in England, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Mexico, California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and New York City,” said political science & legal studies Professor and Chair Rachael Cobb. 

Many students who took the course will cast their first votes in November’s general election, joining the politically-active Suffolk community in exercising their civic right. 

Mendoza-Garcia, who made the eligibility deadline by just a few weeks, says the pandemic course highlighted the impact elected officials up and down the ballot have on how government functions: 

“It just reinforces my opinion that voting is important and you should vote for everything.”

Watch the series:

The Suffolk Political Science & Legal Studies Department partnered with the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University and WGBH Forum Network, including producers Annie Shreffler, Lauren Jo Alicandro, and Arjun Singh, to expand the conversation into the public sphere through weekly panel discussions, available online: 
Politics in the Time of Global Pandemic


Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs